O'Driscoll and band practise victory jig

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The Independent Online

The Ireland players went in search of Latin rhythm earlier in the week, to spice up preparations before today's game against Italy at Lansdowne Road. While it was not Strictly Come Dancing, and there was no Darren Gough figure twirling away, it still attempted to marry sport with dance.

Brian O'Driscoll and his men went on a team-building course where they ended up performing as five-piece samba bands. Apparently, the stars of the show were the Leicester full-back Geordan Murphy, prop John Hayes, scrum-half Peter Stringer and the lock Donncha O'Callaghan.

But beating time is one thing, beating Italy this afternoon is quite another. The coach, Pierre Berbizier, the former France scrum-half and captain, feels that he is more attuned to their Latin approach.

Berbizier has also sprung a few selectorial surprises, without changing the basic Italian approach. No matter that Andrea Lo Cicero, the heavyweight prop, finds himself on the bench rather than starting his 50th Test for his country.

The Italian front five is still fearsome enough. Whether they possess the stamina to maintain what is certain to be a powerful assault on the Ireland scrum for the full 80 minutes is another thing. But while the Italian forwards are piling into each and every scrum Ireland's power pack will find their own reserves being drained steadily.

Up front, rather than out back, is where this match will be decided. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Italians will inflict enough damage early on, when they are at their most enthusiastic and dangerous, and again later, when using Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni as impact players off the bench, to allow their own pacy backs eventually to cause problems out wide for Ireland.

The line-out, too, promises an interesting confrontation. Ireland have their masterful pairing of Paul O'Connell and Malcolm O'Kelly back in tandem and they should give Marco Bortolami and Santiago Dellape plenty of work. But the Italian duo ply their trade in France - Bortolami, the Italian captain with Narbonne, Dellape in Agen - so they are not going to be a pushover, far from it. O'Kelly and O'Connell can expect a contest at every line-out on their throw and the opposition's.

Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach, knows precisely what to expect. "They have to play through their forwards, they always have," he said. "They have a very strong pack, and we have seen that they can move the ball if they get the platform up front.

"So it is up to us not to give them that platform, and at the same time create a platform for ourselves, because I think we have a really good, exciting back line tomorrow."

The moment Ireland do get that platform, though, O'Sullivan is right: they do have the backs to use the ball, and use it excitingly. O'Driscoll is back in harness with his Leinster colleague Gordon D'Arcy.

The hype and hysteria that has accompanied O'Driscoll's return from the shoulder injury picked up on the Lions tour to New Zealand last summer has him playing better than ever. He naturally disagrees.

"I don't buy into the statement that I have returned better than ever," Ireland's captain said emphatically. "I had a half decent game against Bath and people have started blowing things out of all proportion. You just get games like that where things go right for you and you get a bit of ball in hand and the run of the ball goes with you rather than against you.

"I'm not treating that game as a big step in my comeback, I have gradually started getting better and better, and as far as I am concerned if I can do the simple things right tomorrow, defend well, create something here or there, then I will be happy."

Mirco Bergamasco, a surprise selection at centre for Italy, is still impressed and was talking up the opposition yesterday.

"At their best Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy are the best in the world. Whoever O'Driscoll plays for, be it the Lions, Leinster or Ireland, he invariably transforms that team and its performance. Gordon D'Arcy is a player I have always admired because of skills and ball-carrying ability."

There is also Murphy, the winger Tommy Bowe and the muscular Shane Horgan, but if there is to be a feeding frenzy then there has to be a supply of ball. Re-enter the forwards.

If Ireland are to lead Italy a merry dance, then the band of players up front has to call the tune. Then it will be a jig, rather than a samba that the Irish perform.